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  • Mason Tangatatai

Reclaim Te Reo (so our Tamariki don’t have to)

Originally published by Massive Magazine - Student magazine for Massey University

Illustration by Sara Moana

Our tīpuna took a great journey across the seas to find our home, Aotearoa. This journey was one of perseverance; skilled navigators read the night sky and Māori muscle fought against the Pacific Ocean’s strongest currents. Above all, our ancestors were guided by a deep understanding of te ao Māori and the mouthpiece of that knowledge, te reo.

Te reo Māori - a language that, spoken correctly, holds power and knowledge, all while gracing our taringa with a melodic, poetic tone. The language of te reo has faced a wave of suppression and forced change, leaving many of today’s tangata whenua with a language disconnect.

Professor Meihana Durie, Deputy Vice Chancellor Māori at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa, believes nationwide efforts to revitalise te reo are slowly working and that the universities of Aotearoa have a strong part to play in advancing the use of te reo.

“Compare the amount of te reo spoken 5-10 years ago to now, it’s truly amazing the growth we are making as a country.”

We’re getting to a point of comfort as a country where reo is being used within our leadership, in our largest companies, and the pushback against reo is being called out publicly.

“Although this [is] impressive, we need to push forward with this kaupapa as there are still Māori longing for the opportunity to learn their language - we as universities play a direct and incredibly important role in providing this.”

Why is this so important?

The revitalisation of te reo is important on many fronts, but it can be broken into two levels.

1. The need to ensure tangata whenua can learn as tangata whenua.

2. The need to provide opportunities for everyone else to access te reo resources.

By learning our language and reclaiming it as a social norm, we are not only doing today’s Māori a service, but also bettering the future for our tamariki.

Many generations of Māori have felt an immense disconnect to their culture, due to it being stripped from their genealogy. By reclaiming this for our whānau, we can remove this whakamā, this guilt, that modern Māori face.

I myself have experienced the array of emotions while on my reo journey, a series of missteps and awkward conversations about my whanau’s history have often left me feeling ashamed that I cannot speak.

For Māori, speaking te reo holds an unmatched emotional connection. It can even be easier to speak foreign languages as the language is all you are learning, not so much the saddening history behind it. Without recognising it, us Māori carry grief of our own that can emerge unexpectedly along the journey.

A deliberate set of government strategies were used to remove our peoples’ language – this is part of our history and like it or not, the effects continue to have ripple.

Reclaiming our language is an ongoing battle, reclaiming our language is when can you go and be totally immersed in te reo at every shop, cafe, petrol station, bank; every street corner.

A similar tale?

If we paddle north on our journey to Wales, we can see a country that has taken leaps and bounds towards reclaiming their native language of Cymraeg, or Welsh as it’s known in English.

Wales took an extreme approach to language reclamation by implementing an idea that has gained traction in Aotearoa over the last few years, making their native language compulsory in schools. In 1988 a law was passed that made Welsh compulsory to all students up until they are 16.

This effort has seen Welsh speakers rise in numbers to 883,600 from December 2020, compared to just 514,000 in 1998 when the education reform act was implemented.

Should this be seen as the extreme approach – or rather an effective and reasonable strategy?

Like Māori, Welsh were colonised by the English, their language stripped from all aspects of their lives. It’s important to note that while most people in Wales are Welsh, this isn’t the case for Māori in Aotearoa. This may cause questions around whether or not we have the resources to take such a leap.

Professor Durie believes, as a country, we are on the cusp of having what we need to make substantial advancements towards te reo in our schooling.

“We want to get to a stage where students aren’t just learning te reo, but they are learning in te reo. Learning in te reo means that the staff need access to strong resources and development programmes, there also needs to be ongoing support through strong investment from the New Zealand government – but as a country, we are getting close to [a] collective, reo focused mindset needed to make these advancements.

“Only 4-5% of Māori attend Māori schooling, 95% of our tamariki are in mainstream schools, where Māori isn’t widely taught. If we can consistently provide high quality reo at an early age, the uptake of the language becomes that much more likely.”

What is Massey University contributing?

Massey University, despite being called Massey University (William Massey is no role model of mine), has a history of positively contributing to the access of mātauranga Māori. Since the early 90s, longitudinal studies undertaken within Massey’s research arms have unearthed findings, highlighting the health and educational benefits of growing up in a reo spoken households.

Today, Massey continues to provide courses and initiatives that advance the learnings and research of te reo and tikanga Māori. One course, Toro Mai, founded by Professor Durie, provides tauira and the public alike, with free and easily accessible te reo and tikanga courses.

“Toro Mai is all about learning the foundations of te reo. It’s a great starting point for any Massey student looking to start or continue their reo journey.”

Toro Mai also allows Māori abroad to keep in touch with their whakapapa.

“Nowadays, we have the technology available to access te reo Māori and learning about tikanga, the new use of this has been a game changer. It’s amazing to enable whānau across the globe to allow their tamariki to feel like they are Māori, even when they live in a different country.”

Toro Mai is one of the only free te reo and tikanga courses provided by any university. With over 40,000 participants over the last three years, it poses the question - if there is an obvious demand for te reo, why aren’t the rest of our universities providing courses alike?

Te reo can be for everyone

Learning te reo may not be a viable option for every or even many students across Aotearoa. With learning a new language takes the privilege of time, which is precious in our younger years.

Expectations can also make learning te reo a difficult task. For Pākehā and tauiwi, competing messages can often leave them feeling confused on whether they should learn the language. Māori sometimes say that Pākehā have an obligation to become familiar with te reo, while others utter that the language belongs to Māori and is only for Māori to speak.

It is possible for Pākehā to learn te reo without “re-colonising” it. If you’re learning from a place of respect and believe that learning te reo Māori is a way to show this, that’s a really good approach. It’s completely possible to embark on your reo journey with humility, with respect, and also in a way that’s not defensive.

What courses like Toro Mai have shown us, is that learning te reo and tikanga Māori is more accessible than ever. If you haven’t before, I encourage you to spend a fraction of your week becoming familiar with our language, becoming comfortable with hearing our mother tongue spoken. This will only help in the nation's journey to a revitalised voice.

Whether you’ve already left the shores, or today is the day you embark, as tauiwi and Māori in a waka together, we must all paddle towards te reo Māori now, to create smooth sailing for our tamariki.

Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori.

My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.


Written by Mason Tangatatai

Illustration by Sara Moana

Originally published by Massive Magazine


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